Is an 11th-hour preservation nod a boost for 'Save Camden High' campaign?

Preservation New Jersey has named Camden High School to its 2017 list of the “10 Most Endangered” sites of architectural and historical significance in the state.

In making the announcement Thursday in Trenton, PNJ, an advocacy organization, called the planned demolition of the beloved but crumbling landmark “costly, wasteful and shortsighted.”

“The mayor, school board, state education department, and [Schools Development Authority]  should recognize the cultural significance of historic school buildings,” the announcement said.

The development authority last year committed $133 million to tear down the century-old “Castle on the Hill” at Park and Baird Boulevards and replace it with a state-of-the-art facility.

But some city residents and June 6 primary candidates seek to stop the project, fearing the state will change its mind or run out of money. Online “Save Camden High” campaigns to have been underway since last fall.

“Getting on the [endangered] list is going to give us a little more leverage,” said Dava Salas, a Cramer Hill resident who is part of the grassroots effort to preserve the school. “We’re very, very happy about [the designation] because the school should not be torn down.”

Salas has raised $320 for "Save Camden High" efforts by selling bracelets she makes herself at $3 each.  

“Saving Camden High is one of my platform issues,” City Council candidate April Saul said.

"You can’t put a price on something like Camden High. Of course it would be more expensive to save that building, but I think it’s worth it.”

Said Theo Spencer, a former Camden school board member who’s running for mayor: “I’m a Camden High graduate, Class of 1994. On the one hand I absolutely know why everybody wants the school preserved. But I also understand that the kids actually need a better facility.

“My biggest concern,” Spencer added, “is the school gets knocked down, and there’s no money to replace it. I would just rather keep Camden High than even toy with the possibility it gets knocked down and we end up with nothing.”

The development authority’s director of communications, Kristen MacLean, said funding for the project remains in place.

"Our money comes from bonded dollars and cannot be used to fill some other budget gap," she said, adding, "The planning process between the school district and the SDA for the new Camden High School is currently underway.

"Once school is out for the summer, SDA will have an opportunity to move forward with the invasive testing and environmental remediation analysis needed that will inform the time line for reconstruction."  

Brendan Lowe, spokesman for the Camden schools — which are governed by a state-appointed board — said the condition of the high school “has deteriorated over the last few decades to the point where the best path forward now is to [build] a new building” on the site.

"Dozens of community members are working with us, in partnership with the Camden County Historical Society, to preserve as many [architectural] elements of the storied building as possible and pay homage to its history,” he said.

Lowe also noted that the district has put together a  plan to move the entire Camden High student population in September to the nearby Hatch Middle School building.

“We’re meeting our goal of keeping Camden High together, and in Parkside,” he said.

Supporters who want to keep the existing Camden High together took heart from Preservation New Jersey's designation.

Salas, Saul and a group of other supporters, including Vida Neil and Moneke Singleton-Ragsdale, attended the organization's press conference in Trenton and spread the word via Facebook, where a number of commentors saw placement on the endangered list as a victory.

No question the designation is a boost for the good folks who've been fighting to preserve a grand old school building that has been a symbol of their city's aspirations for 100 years.

But let's note that the 2016 most endangered list included the Hugg-Harrison-Glover house in Bellmawr, which played a role in the Revolutionary War -- and was torn down nevertheless.

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